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Actors and sailors are spooked by whistlers

Posted in Actors, Historical articles, Ships, Superstition on Thursday, 27 June 2013

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This edited article about superstition originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 306 published on 25 November 1967.

Nell Gwynn in dressing room, picture, image, illustration

King Charles II visiting Nell Gwynn in her dressing room at the theatre by Peter Jackson

‘Whistling up the wind’, and so causing a storm to rise, is something sailors have always dreaded. The origin of the fear is not difficult to understand. This is simply ‘imitative magic’: a human whistle sounds like the wind rising, and it was once believed that nature could be made to imitate man in this way.

The only time whistling is permitted at sea, and then only very softly, is when a sailing-ship is becalmed.

Women whistlers were once particularly unpopular, at sea or on land, as witches were once believed to be able to call up the wind at will.

“A whistling woman and a crowing hen,
Are neither fit for God nor men,”

is a very old saying.

Whistling at the bottom of a mine is also considered ill-fated. ‘The Knockers’ – evil spirits who inhabit Cornish tin-mines – don’t like it, and, if too much annoyed, may cause an explosion.

Whistling in the dark can also bring misfortune. In the fenland of East Anglia, sportsmen out shooting at night on the marshes never whistle to their dogs, in case they inadvertently call up ‘the Lantern Man’ – a will-o’-the-wisp who haunts the marshes, and who might lead them astray. Anyone who makes this mistake must immediately throw himself down and bury his mouth in the mud, so that the spirit will pass overhead without noticing him.

Unless it is part of an act, whistling is unlucky in the theatre – especially in a dressing-room, where it means that someone (not necessarily the whistler) will soon be out of a job. The offender is bundled out of the room by his fellow-actors, and before they allow him to return, they force him to turn round three times (three is one of the ‘magic’ numbers). This is supposed to reverse the luck.

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